An aroma like a faintly oily campfire wafts over the lake. Cylinders whirl — chug-a-chug-a — and a grey-white cloud erupts — choo choo! The vessel vibrates. Mechanical parts flail with increasing zeal. Droplets slap the wood floor and flesh with a satisfying sizzle. It is the engagement of all five senses, steamboat captain Dean Smith says, that so entices him.
“The smell, the sounds, everything — it is addictive,” he says.
A passenger on Linda Lue, Dean’s homemade boat, almost starts to see the steam engine as a living thing. She warms up gradually until, like a distance runner, her heart thumps steady and strong. She labors, rumbles, burns, exhales forcefully, sweats profusely and drinks the water Smith systematically provides.
“It really is an anthropomorphic experience,” he says.
About two years ago Smith, an architect by trade, began toiling evenings and weekends to turn a donated sailboat body into this fully functioning steamer reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s African Queen. A few months ago, Smith took a maiden voyage on White Rock Lake, where engines of up to 9.9 horsepower are permitted. LL tops out at about 4 or 5 miles per hour, he says.
The beleaguered pace doesn’t bother Smith, who built his first steamboat in the ’70s with his father (it sunk in Lake Ray Hubbard, he says). He’s always loved building things, he says, and when something actually works — when “it’s not just a model you place on a shelf” — that’s a plus.
Smith lives near White Rock with wife Linda. She and their son, Preston, have cruised the lake at Smith’s side, but teenage daughter Madelyn hasn’t made it out yet, Smith notes. He says it’s easier to manage the boat with two people — one to steer, one to monitor the fuel (mainly wood) and H20. Otherwise, he’s content being alone or surrounded by lake users — whatever — as long as his boat is humming and he’s on the water.
“I’ve been around White Rock Lake for many years, but it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been on the lake, seen it from this perspective,” Smith says, his gaze on the water. “This is the part I like.”
To see Dean Smith’s steamboat in action on White Rock Lake, watch this collection of Vine videos:
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